CARACAS, Venezuela – President Nicolas Maduro has billed his plans to rewrite the constitution as a battle to restore peace in Venezuela after more than two months of deadly, anti-government unrest. The only problem is just one side is likely to show up.
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Friday was the deadline for candidates to register for the July election that will choose 545 delegates to the special convention charged with rewriting the late President Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution.
The opposition has all but ruled out participating what it considers a ploy by officials to avoid elections the government would surely lose. The U.S. and several foreign governments have also condemned the proposal for a new charter as anti-democratic.
"Any participation in this process is an act of complicity with the constitutional fraud and whoever partakes will be declared a cohort of the fraud, coup, repression and assassination of Venezuelans who have fallen in the peaceful protests for the sole reason they were exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate," the opposition Democratic Unity alliance said in a statement this week.
The decision to boycott polling for delegates to the constitutional assembly plays well with the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who've been taking to the streets almost daily to seek Maduro's removal, frequently amid tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 60 people have been killed during the unrest.
But sitting out also entails some risks for the opposition.
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Maduro has become so unpopular amid triple digit inflation and widespread shortages that he's unable to win almost any election no matter how rigged the rules are in favor of the government, according to Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at New York-based Torino Capital.
Under the rules Maduro designed for the constituent assembly polling, two-thirds of the delegates will be selected at a municipal level, meaning sparsely-populated rural areas where the opposition has struggled to make inroads will have a larger say than cities where the protests are raging. The remaining delegates will be chosen in a still-unclear voting exercise by sector-specific groups such as workers' unions and community councils — constituencies the government has traditionally dominated.
According to Rodriguez, if the opposition participated in Maduro's polling for the constituent assembly, it would likely perform better than it did in 2015 congressional elections, when its candidates took 57 percent of the popular vote nationwide.
That would be sufficient to win the majority of district seats by a large enough margin to overcome almost whatever tricks the government deploys to manipulate the sectorial voting, he said.
Polls taken before the protests kicked off this spring show that around 80 percent of Venezuelans favored Maduro's removal this year.
"I think the opposition is making a big mistake," said Rodriguez, who helped mediate Vatican-sponsored talks last year between the opposition and government. "The only way you can win an election with 20 percent support is getting your opponent to not participate, which is essentially what's happening."
But he said if the opposition was to compete and win, or even come close in polling and gain the support of a growing number of disaffected government supporters, it would have an almost unfettered hand to remove Maduro and purge the courts and other institutions stacked with loyalists.
Others defend the opposition's decision, saying that even if a small path to victory exists, validating the government's strategy by participating in the process could potentially dishearten protesters just as street pressure on Maduro is peaking.
"The opposition has to be consistent with their condemnation of this as a coup," said Eugenio Martinez, an electoral expert critical of the government.
Maduro is leaning on socialist party stalwarts to lead the fight for a new constitution. On Thursday night he said first lady Cilia Flores as well as his foreign minister and other top aides will lead a slate of candidates competing for seats in the special assembly. Party leader Diosdado Cabello said he would resign his seat in congress to be eligible to run as well.
But even some government allies have questioned the wisdom of tinkering with a constitution that until a few weeks ago had been hailed by Maduro as an example for the world of revolutionary ideals.
On Thursday, Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, who broke with the government amid its crackdown on protesters, filed a brief with the Supreme Court questioning the legitimacy and purpose of the constitutional assembly.
"This sentence is a step backward for human rights," Ortega said, referring to the high court's decision to rubber stamp Maduro's plans to forego a national referendum asking voters whether they even wanted to rewrite the constitution, procedures that Chavez followed.